April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2007, there were more than 790,000 confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect. In 2006, there were more than 1,500 deaths resulting from child abuse.
Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg, with many cases of child maltreatment going unreported. One study estimated that more than 14 percent of children had experienced some form of maltreatment.
Many factors influence the risk for abuse of children. The most defenseless children, those younger than age 4, are at the greatest risk for abuse or neglect. Other risk factors include family stressors including poverty, substance abuse and lack of a social support network for parents. Children residing in communities with higher rates of violence also can be at greater risk.
Child maltreatment includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse as well as neglect.
Child physical abuse results from intentional bodily injury such as that resulting from hitting, kicking or shaking.
Sexual abuse involves engaging children in sexual acts such as rape, fondling or exposing a child to sexual activities.
Emotional abuse refers to behaviors that demean a child's sense of self-worth or emotional well-being.
Child neglect refers to a failure to meet the child's basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, education or medical care.
The adverse effects of child abuse and neglect can be both immediate and delayed.
Physical injury can result in bruising, cuts, burns or broken bones. Long-term effects of abuse can result in depression and other mental health disorders, substance abuse, obesity, eating disorders and other chronic illnesses.
The prevention of child abuse begins with a multidisciplinary, communitywide commitment to child advocacy and supporting parents and families.
In the U.S. Triple P Study, funded by the CDC and reported in January 2009 in the online journal Prevention Science, it was found that providing parents with access to parenting information and support greatly reduced substantiated cases of child abuse and out-of-home placements as well as emergency room visits and hospitalizations resulting from child maltreatment.
The Triple P Study, undertaken in 19 South Carolina counties, refers to the Positive Parenting Program. It incorporated a wide range of parenting support mechanisms, including education through pamphlets and local news media as well as parental consultation with child-service providers.
Parental support strategies focus on promoting good communication skills, appropriate discipline and responding to children's emotional and physical needs.
To report suspected child maltreatment or to seek help, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at (800) 4-A-CHILD.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a
board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Southern Ute Health Center in Ignacio.